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Sports facility plan has town feeling left out

FILE PHOTO. The Berlin Planning Commission meets in 2021.

Planning Commission wonders why Berlin not included in talks

The Berlin Planning Commission convened on May 11 with one item on their docket — a revised site plan review for the West View at Purnell Crossing planned community, which was approved.

Then, roughly three-quarters of the nearly two-hour meeting focused on questions of how the recently approved, county-funded sports complex project will affect life in the small town.

Planning Director Dave Engelhart attended the meeting and at the conclusion of the commission’s official business, started a discussion with its members and other local officials in attendance, including Worcester County Commissioners Jim Bunting and Chip Bertino — both of whom voted against the project — and Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig, a supporter of the project. Some Berlin and Ocean City residents participated in the discussion as well.

“I’ve been beating the drum pretty loudly on what I think the impacts are on the town and how we need to be included in the ultimate site selection. If this is it, on the Harrison property off Seahawk Road, then we’ll have to make the best of it. But maybe it’s not,” Engelhart said at the meeting.

Engelhart continued that he has yet to see a design or concrete concept and the traffic impacts will be severe, especially along Flower Street, a road that, thanks to the advent of GPS maps, many beachgoers already use to avoid area traffic congestion.

The lift station that serves the area’s water and sewage handling, too, would likely need updating down the road too, especially if something like a “large arena,” which has been bandied about, comes to fruition.

“When you think about traffic and this being a destination, it affects our way of life in Berlin and that’s what I’ve heard from a lot of the public over the last few weeks,” Engelhart said.

Bunting spoke up to address concerns about how the property’s value dropped approximately $500,000 before purchase — saying it was due to a corrected appraisal error. He also addressed questions about ingress and egress, saying he believes the only access to the facility currently would be via Flower Street.

Bunting shed some light on the selection process that whittled down to the 95.6-acre property adjacent to Stephen Decatur High School.

“We got an original list that probably had, it was down to like 25 sites over the whole county,” Bunting said. “And every one of them was rejected without us really having the opportunity to question (it). Then it was down to three different sites, and the owner of one site would not respond to us when we asked for an appraisal from them. Then there was another site sold by the owner before we had the opportunity to buy it. Then this one ended up being the last site.”

Just like during the town hall at Decatur last month, there were voices on each side and in the middle. Absent commission member Matt Stoehr wrote in to express his support for affording local youth an opportunity to play competitive sports locally but does not think the town’s modest hotel room count will equate to substantial room tax revenue for the town or that the “uptick” in business to local restaurants offsets infrastructure and town resource expenses to accommodate the sports complex.

“I don’t think the answer is a yes or a no,” Stoehr wrote. “I think we look at this and see if there’s a way to mold this project into a home run for the future of Berlin and all of its residents. This is a major project. Let’s not be so quick to dismiss it.”

Gehrig spoke of a desire to work in cooperation with Berlin and Worcester County and repeatedly emphasized that he did not see the issue in terms of Ocean City versus anyone else in the county.

“The water and sewer, some of the infrastructure concerns, these are the things that can be discussed mutually. I know there was a concern about why (you) don’t know anything. I understand completely … that there are a lot of unanswered questions but there are 180 days to get all these questions answered,” Gehrig said.

“And there’s an eject button. It can be pushed at any time and this whole thing goes away … I think there’s a real opportunity to partner over the cost, Worcester County and Berlin and let’s work through all of the issues.”

After Gehrig spoke, Bertino wanted to make clear to all that no partnership has formed between the county or any other municipality or entity — that the questions or concerns are all valid but currently the sports complex is exclusively in the purview of the county.

There was a time for such discussions of cooperation, Bertino said, and it should have been much earlier in the process.

“This is in your backyard, in Berlin. And you were blindsided by this particular parcel. That’s the reality. I wish it could be otherwise,” Bertino said.

“To this body and anyone else who’s listening, please understand and please note that the reality in which we live right now: only the county has standing with this project. Unfortunately, not … the Town of Berlin and, in reality, not Ocean City, because we don’t have any sort of relationship in accordance with this project … There has been nothing other than media speculation, comments in the media, comments on the radio, comments at different council meetings. There have been absolutely no discussions.”

In stark contrast to Gehrig’s overtures that there is an opportunity for the county and its municipalities to work together, commission member Ron Cascio struck an adversarial tone.

“Let’s start with who’s coming at us,” Cascio said. “This concept is a way to fill more Ocean City hotels and restaurants with paying customers that started with their business community and worked its way into town politics. Actually, it started 20 years ago when the driver then was golf packages. We were told we would all be rich if we made Worcester County into a golf destination like Myrtle Beach. Twenty years later how’s that working out?”

Cascio went on to claim that if Ocean City had 100 acres available for such a project, “it would be going there right where it belongs — right where they’d really like to have it.” But businesses on the island in the time since have already “gobbled up and monetized every square inch of their own little town.”

“So now they’re coming here to gobble up some of ours.”

The sports complex site, while close, is not in the Berlin city limits.

Cascio described the approved project as having been “foisted upon” the town of Berlin by these actors and claimed they expect Berlin to “acquiesce our sovereignty” to make it happen.

“Apparently, unbeknownst to them, the good people of Berlin don’t take kindly to intruders coming here and telling us what we need to suffer in order for them to make a buck,” he said.

The Berlin Planning Commission next meets on June 8.

This story appears in the print version of Bayside Gazette on May 19, 2022.